Here’s Everything We Packed Into Three Nights At Brisbane Festival

26 September 2019 | 5:26 pm | Hannah Story

At Brisbane Festival, there’s an emphasis on community and connection – through the work and through the audiences’ relations with each other.

“Describe a piece of music, dance or art that has made a lasting impression on you and explain why,” Communal Table asks.

Brisbane Festival makes a lasting impression – in terms of the connections we make with strangers, with artists and their work, and the community we’re drawn into over three nights in September. 

We connect through conversation at Dancenorth and The School Of Life’s collaboration, Communal Table. While many attendees are part of the Brisbane arts community and feel at home at once, there’s a deliberate attempt here to slip people out of their comfort zones. We enter the converted warehouse space with our eyes closed, led through by too many wandering hands. We’re seated, separately from who we came with, seemingly at random, at large circular tables. We’re invited to meet new people.

Talking to strangers over a meal seems difficult at first, tucking into shared platters of Turkish food, but that initial sense of unease is overcome with the help of a few wines and the skills of the dancers, seated one to a table. They encourage conversation, later using overheard snippets as throughlines for a collaborative dance piece. With a set of discussion cards, asking, “For what in your life do you feel more grateful?” (my mum) or, “Describe a defining moment or experience in your life that changed you,” (Scotland), we start to learn about each other, and there’s a simple pleasure to getting to know someone new, someone entirely separate from our everyday lives. We learn about their lives and desires and misgivings, and there’s an openness and generosity of spirit here that lets us share those intimate details too. We wind up feeling vitalised and encouraged.

"There’s an openness and generosity of spirit here that lets us share those intimate details too. We wind up feeling vitalised and encouraged."

Our table is cleaned and brought to the floor, a surface on which dancer Jack Ziesing moves. His work is a collaboration with choreographer Daniel Riley, Ziesing bouncing off the energy of those gathered. A grandmother at the table expresses her fear for him – he started low and she worried he might be sad; she wants to lift him up. It’s hard to give yourself permission to look around at the way dancers at other tables move in different ways, capturing a different feeling in the room, or inviting their table to perform actions with them. There’s an almost sensory overload, a pressure that builds thanks to a score from Kelly Ryall, as we sit in thrall. Ziesing teaches us a series of moves and we’re invited into the space, as are the other tables, as a dance party suddenly unfolds around us. It’s liberating and moving and entirely unlike your expected festival event.

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Elisa Jane Carmichael’s Evenings Lights illuminate the pavement underfoot as we make our way up King Street to The Tivoli. The work brings the Brisbane Festival experience into people’s everyday lives, something to glance at curiously while on the way to dinner or a show. As inspired by Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poetry, the patterned light projection all along the street is subtle – like it could be a part of the Brisbane city landscape all year around. Hopefully one day it is. 

Across four nights as part of the festival, the Tivoli stage becomes ‘the cube’, a kind of theatre in the round, so-named for the scaffolding from which stage lights hang. The usual stage is now a spot for chairs and lampshades, a place for early punters to sit and relax on the same level as the artist. Other punters assemble around the stage or on the balcony above, still largely concentrated front of stage.

Paul Dempsey leads the first night of The Tivoli's In The Round shows, ahead of No Mono, Emma Louise and Husky. While the line-up isn’t Brissie-focused like other special events at Brisbane Festival, it’s a showcase of some of the best singer-songwriters in the country, offering a surprisingly intimate experience. The stage lights set up on all sides, in all corners, also light up the faces of the crowd so you can see them gazing up in reverence at the Something For Kate bandleader, and his support act, the kind of western-folk artist Fraser A Gorman. It also makes every mannerism, every moment seem that much more pronounced, whether Dempsey’s stepping on the spot or flicking hair out of his face, or stooping over his guitar. 

Kicking off with Captain (Million Miles An Hour), Dempsey cycles through covers, songs from both his solo records, Strange Loop and Everything Is True, as well as more Something For Kate tracks. He’s always carrying his mic stand to face in all four directions, which makes the set dynamic, leaning back the opposite way to play a riff to another part of the crowd. There are the expected moments of wit: “I feel like I’m playing Spin The Bottle with myself,” he quips, before saying he’s having an “existential crisis”, feeling both part of and separate from the audience at once. He changes arrangements to keep the songs sounding fresh, and to play to his solo acoustic mode. 

All of the songs have more of an upbeat bend to them, making the night feel convivial, even if a girl in the bathroom drunkenly screams, “I don’t need this sad sack shit!” and it’s hard to tell if it’s comment about her personal life or the man on stage. As we near the end of the set, he jokes: “This whole experience has made me crave my own variety show: ‘The Miserable Hour With Paul Dempsey’.” The evening illustrates not just Dempsey’s place in the Australian music canon, but the power of music to connect people from disparate places – people standing side-by-side in a kind of communion. 

Moving through Museum of Brisbane’s High Rotation, a catalogue of memorabilia from the city’s vibrant music scene, it’s easy to get distracted. It seems like we could spend the day watching music videos on one of the many large-scale screens hanging around the rooms – who wouldn’t want to watch Murray Cook rock out with DZ Deathrays for five minutes, or show their appreciation for Savage Garden? 

There are people working here who recall the wave of censorship in Brissie, who share personal anecdotes of visiting the record shops immortalised behind glass on the walls, the place of a cultural transgression: selling rock music with swears, shocking!  We talk about social issues and music and the power of the music community. There’s a reverence to the people that came before – a nostalgic feeling – but also an attempt to capture the community spirit, the way a DIY scene developed into a formidable force in Australian music. It’s a worthy endeavour, spotlighting the spirit of creativity and collaboration that seems to mark not just the music scene but Brisbane Festival as a whole.

Like Evening Lights, River Of Light celebrates Brisbane’s rich First Nations history, and the Meanjin people. Fountains, lights, projections and lasers rise up from the water by the South Bank Cultural Forecourt, again bringing the festival straight into the lives of everyday people. You can peer at it from the shoreline, or look over at it from the Victoria Bridge, as The Wheel Of Brisbane rises behind, having walked past magenta-lit buildings in the CBD. There’s something striking in the way the story is told by Shannon Ruska and Oracle Liquid, and in the way it brings people together. People are leaning over to ogle, swept up in the ten-minute event, before shuffling off to pose proudly beside letters spelling out ‘BRISBANE’.

Bryony Kimmings’ I’m A Phoenix, Bitch is a compelling and brutal piece of theatre, with plenty of humour. In 2016, Kimmings struggled with postnatal depression. Her son, Frank, was diagnosed with epilepsy. Her relationship with Frank’s father, Tim, fell apart. This production details her spin into mania, in a cottage in rural England, but also her recovery, using film tropes, audiovisuals and songs to draw a complex portrait of a woman on – then over – the brink. She totally inhabits her past selves, inviting us to identity with each of them. 

Speaking to The Music back in August, Kimmings spoke about how as a performer she needs to remember that people connect to work by relating to it. They want to feel something, to see the person or story on stage as a kind of mirror. “[The audience are] not really watching you,” she says. “They're watching you and they're thinking about themselves, they're thinking about how they would've reacted to those things, they're thinking about how they feel emotionally connected to me as a person. It's about them.”

There’s a sense of community in the room as we, the audience as a single body, bear witness to Kimmings’ trauma, struggle and then her inner strength. There are moments were we laugh in unison, or tear up, or our minds wander to our own understanding of mental illness, and love, pure love, before a standing ovation at the end. We’re grateful that Kimmings was able to turn an almost-unspeakably difficult life experience into a work as precise and refined as this.

We wander out of QPAC into Brisbane Festival's hub, Treasury Brisbane Arcadia. There are spaces to drink, there are places to dance, like the salon-styled Divine, there are places to eat, there’s the fun and frivolity of the Spiegeltent. It’s all on the forecourt, looking out onto the Brisbane River. 1000 Doors sits here, a strange, almost-haunted house attraction. Afterwards, someone speaks about how there were times inside when they felt this deep sense of tension, of dread. But at other times, they felt strangely at peace.

It’s an interesting way to muse on how an environment changes us, can toy with our emotions, but also about how it empowers us to connect. There are no jump scares here, just an almost foreboding feeling as we pass through door after door after door after door with no end in sight, immersed in a horror aesthetic of lights flickering, phones ringing, wallpaper peeling in these in-between spaces. There’s something disconcerting here, but also an opportunity to join together in trepidation – and a sense of discovery – and then in unexpected moments of comfort. 

Overall, three days at Brisbane Festival are barely enough to take everything in – it’s enough to give us a taste and the desire to return again next year. 

Disclaimer: The writer was the guest of Brisbane Festival and Brisbane Marketing